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Chapter 13: the Boston Radical Club: Dr. F. H. Hedge

The Boston Radical Club appears to me one of the social developments most worthy of remembrance in the third quarter of the nineteenth century. From a published record of its meetings I gather that the first of them was held at the residence of Dr. Bartol in the autumn of the year 1867. I felt a little grieved and aggrieved at the time, in that no invitation had been sent me to be present on this occasion, but was soon consoled by a letter offering me membership in the new association, which, it may be supposed, I did not decline. The government of the club was of the simplest. Its meetings were held on the first Monday of every month, and most frequently at the house of Rev. John T. Sargent, though occasionally at that of Dr. Bartol. The master of the house usually presided, but Mrs. Sargent was always present and aided much in suggesting the names of the persons who should be called upon to discuss the essay of the day. The proceedings were limited to the reading and discussion of a paper, which rarely exceeded an hour [282] in length. On looking over the list of essayists, I find that it includes the most eminent thinkers of the day, in so far as Massachusetts is concerned. Among the speakers mentioned are Ralph Waldo Emerson, Dr. Hedge, David A. Wasson, O. B. Frothingham, John Weiss, Colonel Higginson, Benjamin Peirce, William Henry Channing, C. C. Everett, and James Freeman Clarke. It was a glad surprise to me when I was first invited to read a paper before this august assemblage. This honor I enjoyed more than once, but I appreciated even more the privilege of listening and of taking part in the discussions which, after the lapse of many years, are still remembered by me as truly admirable and instructive.

I did indeed hear at these meetings much that pained and even irritated me. The disposition to seek outside the limits of Christianity for all that is noble and inspiring in religious culture, and to recognize especially within these limits the superstition and intolerance which have been the bane of all religions—this disposition, which was frequently manifested both in the essays presented and in their discussion, offended not only my affections, but also my sense of justice. I had indeed been led to transcend the limits of the old tradition; I had also devoted much time to studies of philosophy, and had become conversant [283] with the works of Auguste Comte, Hegel, Spinoza, Kant, and Swedenborg. Nothing of what I had heard or read had shaken my faith in the leadership of Christ in the religion which makes each man the brother of all, and God the beneficent father of each and all,—the religion of humanity. Neither did this my conviction suffer any disturbance through the views presented by speakers at the Radical Club.

Setting this one point aside, I can but speak of the club as a high congress of souls, in which many noble thoughts were uttered. Nobler than any special view or presentation was the general sense of the dignity of human character and of its affinity with things divine, which always gave the master tone to the discussions.

The first essay read before the Radical Club of which I have any distinct recollection was by Rev. John Weiss, and had for its title, ‘The Immanence of God.’ It was highly speculative in character, and appeared to me to suggest many insoluble questions, among others, that of the origin of the sensible world.

Lord and Lady Amberley, who were present, expressed to me great admiration of the essay. The occasion was rendered memorable by the beautiful presence of Lucretia Mott.

Other discourses of John Weiss I remember with greater pleasure, notably one on the legend [284] of Prometheus, in which his love for Greece had full scope, while his vivid imagination, like a blazing torch, illuminated for us the deep significance of that ancient myth.

I remember, at one of these meetings, a rather sharp passage at arms between Mr. Weiss and James Freeman Clarke. Mr. Weiss had been declaiming against the insincerity which he recognized in ministers who continue to use formulas of faith which have ceased to correspond to any real conviction. The speaker confessed his own shortcoming in this respect.

‘All of us,’ he said,—‘yes, I myself have prayed in the name of Christ, when my own feeling did not sanction its use.’

On hearing this, Mr. Clarke broke in.

‘Let Mr. Weiss answer for himself,’ he said with some vehemence of manner. ‘If in his pulpit he prayed in the name of Christ, and did not believe in what he said, it was John Weiss that lied, and not one of us.’ The dear minister afterwards asked me whether he had shown any heat in what he said. I replied, ‘Yes, but it was good heat.’

Another memorable day at the club was that on which the eminent French Protestant divine, Athanase Coquerel, spoke of religion and art in their relation to each other. After a brief but interesting review of classic, Byzantine, and mediaeval [285] art, M. Coquerel expressed his dissent from the generally received opinion that the Church of Rome had always been foremost in the promotion and patronage of the fine arts. The greatest of Italian masters, he averred, while standing in the formal relations with that church, had often shown opposition to its spirit. Michael Angelo's sonnets revealed a state of mind intolerant of ecclesiastical as of other tyranny. Raphael, in the execution of a papal order, had represented true religion by a portrait figure of Savonarola. Holbein and Rembrandt were avowed Protestants. He considered the individuality fostered by Protestantism as most favorable to the development of originality in art.

With these views Colonel Higginson did not agree. He held that Christianity had reached its highest point under the dispensation of the Catholic faith, and that the progress of Protestantism marked its decline. This assertion called forth an energetic denial from Dr. Hedge, Mr. Clarke, and myself.

M. Coquerel paid a second visit to the Radical Club, and spoke again of art, but without reference to any question between differing sects. He began this discourse by laying down two rules which should be followed by one aspiring to become an artist. In the first place, he must make sure that he has something to say which can only [286] be said through this medium. In the second place, he must make himself master of the grammar of the art which he intends to pursue.

While I cannot avoid recognizing the anti-Christian twist which mostly prevailed in the Radical Club, I am far from wishing to convey the impression that those of us who were otherwise affected were not allowed the opportunity of expressing our own individual opinions. The presence at the meetings of such men as James Freeman Clarke, Dr. Hedge, William Henry Channing, and Wendell Phillips was a sufficient earnest of the catholicity of intention which prevailed in the government of the club. Only the intellectual bias was so much in the opposite direction that we who stood for the preeminence of Christianity sometimes felt ourselves at a disadvantage, and in danger of being set down as ignorant of much that our opponents assumed to know.

In this connection I must mention a day on which, under the title of ‘Jonathan Edwards,’ Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes favored the club with a very graphic exposition of old-time New England Calvinism. The brilliant doctor's treatment of this difficult topic was appreciative and friendly, though by no means acquiescent in the doctrines presented. He said, indeed, that ‘the feeling which naturally arises in contemplating [287] the character of Jonathan Edwards is that of deep reverence for a man who seems to have been anointed from his birth; who lived a life pure, laborious, self-denying, occupied with the highest themes, and busy in the highest kind of labor.’

Nevertheless, Wendell Phillips thought the paper, on the whole, unjust to Edwards, and felt that there must have been in his doctrine another side not fully brought forward by the essayist. These and other speakers were heard with great interest, and the meeting was one of the best on our record.

I have heard it said that Wendell Phillips's orthodoxy was greatly valued among the antislavery workers, especially as the orthodox pulpits of the time gave them little support or comfort. I was told that Edmund Quincy, one day, saw Parker and Phillips walking arm in arm, and cried out: ‘Parker, don't dare to pervert that man. We want him as he is.’

I was thrice invited to read before the Radical Club. The titles of my three papers were, ‘Doubt and Belief,’ ‘Limitations,’ ‘Representation, and How to Secure it.’

William Henry Channing was one of the bright lights of the Radical Club, a man of fervent nature and of exquisite perceptions, presenting in his character the rare combination of deep piety with breadth of view and critical acumen. We [288] were indebted to him for a discourse on ‘The Christian Name,’ in which he vindicated the claim of Christianity to the homage of the ages. His words, most welcome to me, came to us like reconciling harmony after a succession of discords.

A singular over-appreciation of the value of the spoken as compared with the written word led Mr. Channing to speak always or mostly without a manuscript. It was much to be regretted that he in this way failed to give a permanent literary form to the thoughts which he so eloquently expressed, reminding some of his hearers of the costly pearl dissolved in wine. The discourse of which I have just spoken, while arousing considerable difference of opinion among those who listened to it, did nevertheless leave behind it a sweetening and elevating influence, due to a fresh outpouring of the divine spirit of charity and peace.

In this connection I may speak of a series of discourses upon questions of religion, mostly critical in tone, which were given at Horticultural Hall on Sunday afternoons in the palmy days of the Radical Club. I had listened with pain to one of these, of which the drift appeared to me particularly undevout, and was resting still under the weight of this painful impression when I saw William Henry Channing coming towards me, and detained him for a moment's speech. ‘What are we to say to all this?’I inquired. [289]

‘Be of good cheer,’ said he; ‘the topic demanded a telescopic rifle, and this man has been firing at something ten miles away with a blunderbuss.’

I was always glad of Mr. Channing's presence on occasions on which matters of faith were likely to be called in question. I felt great support in the assurance that he would always uphold the right, and in the right spirit.

It was in the strength of this assurance that I betook myself to Mrs. Sargent's house one evening, to hear Mr. Francis E. Abbot expound his peculiar views to a little company of Unitarian ministers. Mr. Abbot, in the course of his remarks, exclaimed: ‘The Christian Church is blind! it is blind!’ Mr. Wasson replied: ‘We cannot allow Brother Abbot to think that he is the only one who sees.’ I remember of this evening that I came away much impressed with the beautiful patience of the older gentlemen.

I must mention one more occasion at the Radical Club. I can remember neither the topic nor the reader of the essay, but the discussion drifted, as it often did, in the direction of woman suffrage, and John Weiss delivered himself of the following utterance: ‘When man and woman shall meet at the polls, and he shall hold out his hand and say to her, Give me your quick intuition and accept in return my ratiocination’—A ringing laugh [290] here interrupted the speaker. It came from Kate Field.

Mr. Emerson had a brief connection with the Radical Club; and this may be a suitable place in which to give my personal impressions of the Prophet of New England. In remembering Mr. Emerson, we should analyze his works sufficiently to be able to distinguish the things in which he really was a leader and a teacher from other traits peculiar to himself, and interesting as elements of his historic character, but not as features of the ideal which we are to follow. Mr. Emerson objected strongly to newspaper reports of the sittings of the Radical Club. The reports sent to the New York Tribune by Mrs. Louise Chandler Moulton were eagerly sought and read in very distant parts of the country. I rejoiced in this. It seemed to me that the uses of the club were thus greatly multiplied and extended. It became an agency in the great church universal. Mr. Emerson's principal objection to the reports was that they interfered with the freedom of the occasion. When this objection failed to prevail, he withdrew from the club almost entirely, and was never more heard among its speakers.

I remember hearing Mr. Emerson, in his discourse on Henry Thoreau, relate that the latter had once determined to manufacture the best lead pencil that could possibly be made. Having [291] attained this end, parties interested at once besought him to make this excellent article attainable in trade. He said, ‘Why should I do this? I have shown that I am able to produce the best pencil that can be made. This was all that I cared to do.’ The selfishness and egotism of this point of view did not appear to have entered into Mr. Emerson's thoughts. Upon this principle, which of the great discoverers or inventors would have become a benefactor to the human race? Theodore Parker once said to me, ‘I do not consider Emerson a philosopher, but a poet lacking the accomplishment of rhyme.’ This may not be altogether true, but it is worth remembering. There is something of the vates in Mr. Emerson. The deep intuitions, the original and startling combinations, the sometimes whimsical beauty of his illustrations,—all these belong rather to the domain of poetry than to that of philosophy. The high level of thought upon which he lived and moved and the wonderful harmony of his sympathies are his great lesson to the world at large. Despite his rather defective sense of rhythm, his poems are divine snatches of melody. I think that, in the popular affection, they may outlast his prose.

I was once surprised, in hearing Mr. Emerson talk, to find how extensively read he was in what we may term secondary literature. Although a [292] graduate of Harvard, his reading of foreign literatures, ancient and modern, was mostly in translations. I should say that his intellectual pasture ground had been largely within the domain of belles-lettres proper.

He was a man of angelic nature, pure, exquisite, just, refined, and human. All concede him the highest place in our literary heaven. First class in genius and in character, he was able to discern the face of the times. To him was entrusted not only the silver trump of prophecy, but also that sharp and two-edged sword of the Spirit with which the legendary archangel Michael overcomes the brute Satan. In the great victory of his day, the triumph of freedom over slavery, he has a record not to be outdone and never to be forgotten.

A lesser light of this time was the Rev. Samuel Longfellow. I remember him first as of a somewhat vague and vanishing personality, not much noticed when his admired brother was of the company. This was before the beginning of his professional career. A little later, I heard of his ordination as a Unitarian minister from Rev. Edward Everett Hale, who had attended, and possibly taken part in, the services. The poet Longfellow had written a lovely hymn for the occasion, beginning with this line:—

Christ to the young man said, “Give me thy heart.”


Mr. Hale spoke of ‘Sam Longfellow’ as a valued friend, and remarked upon the modesty and sweetness of his disposition. ‘I saw him the other day,’ said Mr. Hale. ‘He showed me a box of colors which he had long desired to possess, and which he had just purchased. Sam said to me, “I thought I might have this now.” ’ He was fond of sketching from nature.

Years after this time, I heard Mr. Longfellow preach at the Hawes Church in South Boston. After the service I invited him to take a Sunday dinner with Dr. Howe and myself. He consented, and I remember that in the course of our conversation he said, ‘Theodore Parker has made things easier for us young ministers. He has demolished so much which it was necessary to remove.’ The collection entitled ‘Hymns of the Spirit,’ and published under the joint names of Samuel Longfellow and Samuel Johnson, is a valuable one, and the hymns which Mr. Longfellow himself contributed to the repertoire of the denomination are deeply religious in tone; and yet I must think that among Unitarians of thirty or more years ago he was held to be something of a skeptic. Thomas G. Appleton was speaking of him in my presence one day, and said, ‘He asked me whether I could not get along without the idea of a personal God. I replied, “ No, you—— ——.” ’ Appleton shook his fist, and was very vehement in his expression; [294] but his indignation had reference to Mr. Longfellow's supposed opinions, and not at all to his character, which was esteemed of all men.

I myself was present when he read his essay on ‘Law’ before the Radical Club. Of this I especially recall a rather elaborate argument against the popular notion of a directing and overruling Providence. He supported his statement by the imagined story of a shipwreck or railroad disaster, in which some would escape injury, while others quite as worthy might be killed or maimed for life. ‘How,’ he asked, ‘could we call a providence divine which, able to save all of those people, should rescue only a part of them, leaving the rest to perish?’

When it became my turn to take part in the discussion of this paper, I admitted the logical consistency of Mr. Longfellow's argument. I could point out no flaw in it, and yet, I maintained that the faith in an overruling Providence lay so deeply in my mind that it still persevered, in spite of the ingenious statements to which we had just listened. Mrs. Livermore, who was present on this occasion, expressed herself as much of my opinion, acknowledging the consistency of the demonstration, but declining to abide in the conclusion arrived at.

My last recollection of speech with Mr. Longfellow is of an evening on which I lectured at his [295] church in Germantown. He gave me a most hospitable reception, and I found it very pleasant to be his guest.

To speak of my first impressions of Dr. F. H. Hedge, I must turn back to the autumn of 1841, when he delivered his first Phi Beta address at Harvard College.

This was the summer already mentioned as having brought my first meeting with Dr. Howe. Commencement and Phi Beta in those days were held in the early autumn, and my sisters and I were staying at a cottage in Dorchester when we received an invitation from Mrs. Farrar, of hospitable memory, to pass the day at her house, with other guests, among whom Margaret Fuller was mentioned. It was arranged that I should go with Margaret to the church in which the morning meeting would be held. I had never even heard of Dr. Hedge, but I listened to him with close attention, and can still recall the steely ring of his voice, and the effect of his clear-cut sentences. The poem was given by Charles Sprague; and of this I only remember that in one couplet, speaking of the wonderful talents which parents are apt to recognize in their children, he asked whence could have come those ordinary men and women whom we all know. This question provoked some laughter on the part of [296] the audience. As we left the church, I asked Margaret whether she had not found Dr. Hedge's discourse very good. She replied, ‘Yes; it was high ground for middle ground.’ Many years after this time, I asked Dr. Hedge what Margaret could have meant by this saying. His answer was that she had hoped to see him take a more pronounced position with regard to the vexed questions of the time.

From the church we returned to dine with Mrs. Farrar, on whose pleasant piazza I enjoyed a long walk and talk with Margaret. By and by a carriage stopped before the door. She said, ‘It is Mr. Ripley; he has come for me. I have promised to visit his wife.’ In a few words she told me about this remarkable woman, who was long spoken of as ‘the wonderful Mrs. Ripley.’

It must have been, I think, some twelve years later that I met Dr. Hedge for the first time at a friend's house in Providence, R. I. He was at this time pastor of the first and only Unitarian church in that city. In the course of the evening which I passed in his company, I was repeatedly invited to sing, and did so, remarking at last that when I began to sing I was like the minister when he began to pray, I never knew when to leave off.

Years after this time, I met him walking in Washington Street, Boston, with a mutual acquaintance. [297] This person, whose name I cannot now recall, stopped me and said, ‘Here is our friend, Dr. Hedge, who is henceforth to be in our neighborhood.’ I replied that I was glad to hear it, and was somewhat taken aback when Dr. Hedge, addressing me, said, ‘No, you are not glad at all. You don't care anything about ministers.’

‘Why do you say so?’ I rejoined. ‘I belong to James Freeman Clarke's congregation, and I do care a great deal about some ministers.’

Dr. Hedge then mischievously reminded me of my speech in Providence, which I had entirely forgotten, and with a little mutual pleasantry he went on his way and I on mine. Dr. Hedge's irony might have been characterized as ‘a pleasant sour.’ I think that I felt, in spite of it, the weight and value of his character, even when he appeared to treat me with little consideration. I heard an excellent sermon from him one day, at our own church, and went up after service to thank him for it. I had with me three of my young children and, as I showed them, I said, ‘See what a mother in Israel I have become.’ ‘It takes something more than a large family to make a mother in Israel,’ said the doctor. I do not quite know how it was that I took him, as the French say, into great affection, inviting him frequently to my house, and feeling a sort of illumination [298] in his clear intellect and severe taste. Before I had come to know him well, I asked Theodore Parker whether he did not consider Dr. Hedge a very learned man. He replied, ‘Hedge is learned in spots.’

Parker's idea of learning was of the encyclopaedic kind. He wanted to know everything about everything; his reading and research had no limits but those of his own strength, and for many years he was able to set these at naught. He was wonderfully well informed in many directions, and his depth of thought enabled him to make his multifarious knowledge available for the great work which was the joy of his life. Yet I remember that even he, on one occasion, spoke of the cinnerian matter of the brain, usually termed the cineritious. Horace Mann, who was present, corrected this, and said, ‘Parker, that is the first mistake I ever heard you make.’ Parker seemed a little annoyed at this small slip.

I heard a second Phi Beta discourse from Dr. Hedge some time in the sixties. I remember of it that he compared the personal and petty discipline of Harvard College with the independent regime of the German universities, which he greatly preferred. He also said, quite distinctly, that he considered the study of German literature to-day more important than that of the Greek classics. This was a liberal theologian's point [299] of view. I agreed to it at the time, but have thought differently since I myself have acquired some knowledge of the Greek language, and especially since the multiplication of good translations has brought the great works of German philosophy and literature so well within the reach of those who have not mastered the cumbrous and difficult language. Dr. Hedge's last removal was to Cambridge, whither he had been called to fill the chair of the German professorship. I recall with interest a course of lectures on philosophy, which he gave at the university, and which outsiders were permitted to attend. I was unwilling to miss any of these; and on one occasion, having passed the night without sleeping, on the road between New York and Boston, I determined, in spite of my fatigue, to attend the lecture appointed for that day. I accordingly went out to Cambridge, and took my seat among Dr. Hedge's hearers. From time to time a spasm of somnolence would seize me, but the interest of the lecture was so great and my desire to hear it so strong that I did not once catch myself napping.

Dr. Hedge was a lover of the drama. When Madame Janauschek first visited Boston, he asked me to accompany him in a visit to her. The conversation was in German, which the doctor spoke fluently. Madame J. said, among other things, [300] that she had intended coming a year earlier, and had sent forward at that time her photograph and her biography. The doctor once invited me to go with him to the Boston Theatre, which was then occupied by a French troupe. This was at some period of our civil war. The most important of the plays given was ‘La Joie fait Peur.’ As it proceeded, Dr. Hedge said to me, ‘What a wonderful people these French are! They have put passion enough into this performance to carry our war through to a successful termination.’

Dr. Hedge had known Margaret Fuller well in her youth and his own. His judgment of her was perhaps more generous than hers of him, as indicated in her criticism just quoted of his discourse, namely, that it occupied ‘high ground for middle ground.’ In truth, the two were very unlike. Margaret's nature impelled her to rush into ‘the imminent deadly breach,’ while an element of caution and world-wisdom made the doctor averse to all unnecessary antagonism and conflict. She probably considered him timid where he felt her to be rash. In after years he often spoke of her to me, always with great appreciation. I remarked once to him that she had entertained a very good opinion of herself. He replied, ‘Yes, and she was entitled to it.’ He recalled some passages of her life in Cambridge. She once [301] gave a party and invited only friends from Boston, leaving out all her Cambridge acquaintances, who, in consequence, were much offended, and ceased to make their usual calls. A sister of his, Dr. Hedge said, was the only one of those ladies who continued to visit her.

He saw Margaret for the last time in Rome, and found her much changed and subdued. She was laboring at the time under one of those severe fits of depression to which her letters from Rome bear witness. The conversation between the two friends was long and intimate. Margaret spoke of the terrible night which she had passed alone upon a mountain in Scotland. Dr. Hedge more than once said to me, ‘Margaret experienced religion during that night.’

When, in process of time, the New England Women's Club celebrated what would have been Margaret's sixtieth birthday, Dr. Hedge joined with James Freeman Clarke in loving and reverent testimony to her unusual talents and noble character.

I had the pleasure of twice hearing Dr. Hedge's admirable essay on ‘Luther,’ which he first delivered at Arlington Street Church, and repeated, some years later, before the Town and Country Club of Newport, R. I. But my crowning recollection of him, and perhaps of the crowning performance of his life, is of that memorable evening [302] of anniversary week in the year 1886, when he made his exhaustive and splendid statement of the substance of the Unitarian faith. The occasion was a happy one. The Music Hall was filled with the great Unitarian audience furnished by Boston and its vicinity. George William Curtis was the president of the evening, and introduced the several speakers with his accustomed grace. He made some little pun on Dr. Hedge's name, and the noble speaker quietly stepped forward, with the fire of unquenchable youth in his eyes, with the balance and reserve of power in every word, in every gesture. No note nor scrap of paper did he hold in his hand. None did he need, for he spoke of that upon which his whole life had been founded and built. Every one of his sentences was like a stone, fitly squared and perfectly laid. And so he built up before us, with crystal clearness, the beautiful fabric of our faith, lifting us, as it rose, to a region of the highest peace and contentment. Oh, the joy of it! My heart rests upon it still.

It is well known that Dr. Hedge received the most important part of his education in Germany. He was accordingly one of the first of those who helped to turn the fructifying current of German thought upon the somewhat arid soil of Puritan New England. This soil had indeed produced great things and great men, but the mind of New [303] England was still too much dominated by the traditions of scholasticism, embodied in the system of Calvin. It needed an infusion of the aesthetic element, and the larger outlook of a truly speculative philosophy. The philosophy which it had inherited was one of dogmatism, sophistical in that it made its own syllogisms the final limit and bound of truth. The few Americans who had studied in real earnest in Germany brought back with them the wide sweeping besom of the Kantian method, and much besides. This showed the positive assumptions of the old school to have no such foundation of absolute truth as had been conceded to them. Under their guidance men had presumed to measure the infinite by their own petty standard, and to impose upon the Almighty the limits and necessities with which they had hedged the way of their fellow-men. God could not have mercy in any way other than that which they felt bound to prescribe. His wisdom must coincide with their conclusions. His charity must be as narrow as their own. Those who could not or would not acquiesce in these views were ruled outside of the domain of Christendom. Had it not been for Channing, Freeman, Buckminster, and a few others in that early day, they would have been as sheep without a shepherd. The history is well known. I need not repeat it here.

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